Brain Words Book Club: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching

brain words

Yesterday, we had an invigorating discussion as group of us got together to discuss the book ‘Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching, by Richard Gentry and Gene P. Ouellette. I wanted to share just some of my learning from this experience:

‘Brain Words’ is about helping students to develop rapid and accurate word reading, because word reading is necessary to reading comprehension. It is beyond visual recognition, but deeply connected to phonology.

As the book starts, we are welcomed to think about how we think about how children store patterns and words in their brain. Gentry discusses the idea of helping students to build a dictionary in each child’s brain of syllables and words within each child, and pronunciation, meaning and critical spelling.

When we speak of building a dictionary in each child’s brain, we are referring to building a bank of syllables and words within each child – that includes information on pronunciation, meaning, and critically, spelling. These stored patterns and words referred to by scientists as lexical representations, we refer to here as brain words” p 2.

I really took away the importance of how  to help students store brain-based spelling representations – because this is essential for helping students to develop their own ‘dictionary’ of brain words.

It was very interesting to read about the confusion that exists ‘out there’ about word reading. Some people implement word study programs by sorting words and testing hypotheses so that kids can ‘discover’ how words work. Others still follow scope and sequence charts – which is supposed to bring systematic exploration of words, but usually ends up with isolated lessons. As such, we end up with disconnected lessons for phonological awareness, phonics and vocabulary – and they all become isolated add-ons to an already full literacy block. Some teachers will teach lessons on random words pulled from a random text that will appear next in a reading program – unable to see how it all connects. Some do add-on mini-lessons that are disconnected from other activities.

Some teach explicit spelling, have children memorize words, do spelling tests. This led me to make a connection to math and the ‘memorization’ of math facts:

We don’t want students to just blindly ‘memorize’ multiplication facts – instead, we want students to build the brain pathways that help students to be able to figure out any multiplication fact regardless of whether they have it memorized or not. This develops automaticity. I believe that it is similar with word study. We don’t want students to blindly ‘memorize’ sight words. What we want is to help students develop the pathways for word identification, so that any time students come to a word they do not understand, they have the skills to figure the word out, to sound them out, and the ability to then remember those words. In this way, we create automaticity, not a memorized bank of sight words – the research and science of reading shows that this is not how students learn to read, and will not help students identify unfamiliar words, or remember words.

We also had a great discussion about this and how we don’t follow a ‘program’, per se, but rather we engage in a comprehensive program where hopefully the components all connect.  We want to think about reading development versus lessons from a kit.

I connected this with how David Kilpatrick let us know, that researchers do not study ‘program’s, they study concepts, ideas and techniques. Therefore, ‘Research-Based Programs’ are a moot point. In fact, ‘Research-Based Programs’ is not a protected term, so anyone can use this term to sell their product. What is important is the research and science behind the components of Reading, including Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Vocabulary, Fluency and Comprehension. They are all important and I look forward to learning how it all connects.

So many questions moving forward, including

  • What is the best way to use word walls?
  • Can we change how we use running records to make priorities about how students use visual and sound cueing strategies versus the 3-cueing system (which includes strategies that poor readers use, and not based in the science of reading)
  • How to explicitly teach/integrate phonological awareness, oral language, routes to reading and spelling to promote orthographic learning and creation of brain words
  • How does it all connect?

Really looking forward to studying the second half of the book and learning more about how Gentry’s 5 developmental phases of spelling!

Published by Deborah McCallum

Author of The Feedback Friendly Classroom Literacy Instruction and Assessment Facilitator | Author | AQ Instructor & Developer | MEd @OISEUofT Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development

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